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Q&A: Kenneth Buetow on His New Role at Arizona State University


ken_buetow_1..jpgKenneth Buetow — former director of the National Cancer Institute's Center for Biomedical Informatics and Information Technology — has accepted a position at Arizona State University as the director of computational sciences and informatics in the school's Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative.

At ASU, he will be in charge of two initiatives under CASI: the complex adaptive systems and biomedicine.

Buetow will also be a full professor in the school of life sciences at ASU's college of liberal arts and sciences although the exact nature of his position is still being ironed out.

Both appointments went into effect on March 5.

Buetow has a doctorate and a master’s degree in human genetics from the University of Pittsburgh and an undergraduate degree in biology from Indiana University.

He has spent much of his career in cancer research and in developing and applying new analytical methods to find genetic components underlying complex traits as well as developing and applying linkage disequilibrium methods as genetic mapping tools.

During his 15-year tenure at NCI, Buetow oversaw the Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid initiative, which aims to provide shareable and interoperable infrastructure for cancer; develop standard rules and a common language to improve information sharing; and build or adapt tools for collecting, analyzing, integrating, and disseminating information associated with cancer research and care.

This week, BioInform spoke with Buetow about his decision to leave NCI and his new role as one of the directors at ASU's CASI. What follows is an edited version of the interview.

Why did you leave NCI?

I think it's as much about a decision to go to ASU. It’s a unique place in their activities and their endeavors. ASU’s whole point of view on the knowledge enterprise; its integrated viewpoint of dissemination, integration of knowledge, and its unique view on research were very powerful attractors. In many ways, I felt that I had accomplished all that was doable within the framework of the government and my position at NCI and was looking for new challenges.

What will your duties be in the new position at ASU?

I will have an individual research program similar to what I had at the NCI, although in this instance, I will be working in what has been the core of my program for a long time, [which is] complex traits. I will have the opportunity to examine these traits both at the genetic and genomic level but also integrate them across different clinical phenotypes, which is very exciting.

I will also have a significant position as part of the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative that was launched about 2009 at ASU and is now really starting to get some air under its wings. As part of that, I am going to be the director of the computational science and informatics core program activities.

To help clarify, the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative is about embracing the knowledge enterprise as a system — not in its disparate subcomponents, but instead trying to embrace its inherent multidimensional nature. Through that systems approach, it’s going to address, or at least attempt to embrace, the inherent complexity associated with that and try to actively engage the transdisciplinary stakeholders that are part of the broader knowledge enterprise.

Do you intend to focus on a particular area?

The intent of the initiative is broad, so the entire enterprise — including health, biomedicine, energy, the environment, and sustainability issues — [is] included. I think, not surprisingly, given my background, [and] George Poste’s, who is the founder and a leader of the initiative, and others who are associated with it, as well as in the spirit of not trying to boil the ocean, we will launch early, new activities in the area of biomedicine, which is where we have expertise. But in the spirit of both systems strategies and embracing complexity, our goal is not to have a siloed approach to the problem. We realize that to solve some of the current vexing problems, you have to not only address their technical components or their sociologic components or their resource components or their incentive components, but you really have to embrace the system as a whole because it's really more than the sum of its individual parts.

What sort of computational infrastructure do you have on the ground? Is it enough to handle your computational needs?

I am still very much on the learning curve as to the components available. ASU has existing high-performance computing facilities that will be at the core of what we will be creating in order to have the capacity to manage and manipulate big data. We will also be expanding the capacity to do knowledge management. It's not just about the data but also about metadata and managing how the data interconnects with each other — including the use of models and other forms of information representation. With both types of infrastructure one can leverage data and information across disciplines and interconnect them using information technology as the bridge between various disciplines and activities.

Are you hiring new people?

For sure we are going to be hiring new people. We are approaching this as an ultra-large-scale system. We are going to embrace the paradigm, “think big, start small, and act now.” We are going to be bootstrapping new activities leveraging existing activities that are already in place at ASU and the rich collection of different faculty and resources that are already there. We will then strategically bring in new capabilities as needs arise.

The capacity for complexity and complex adaptive systems work is already well instantiated at ASU. For example, the Consortium for Biosocial Complex Systems at ASU already integrates efforts of researchers at the Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity, the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, and the Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center.

You mentioned earlier that there were some specific projects that you were hoping to launch. Could you tell me what those are?

What I was referring to was projects that I am conducting right now and work that I plan to be continuing at ASU. The current focus of my research program looks at the intersection of phenotypes such as obesity, chronic liver disease, diabetes, and liver cancer. I know there is a very strong interest in this type of work at ASU and already investment in studying obesity as a complex adaptive trait. I hope to be able both to continue my current research and explore opportunities to work with other members there that are doing such work.

Did you bring your lab with you?

Some of the components of my lab will be coming with me

Can you elaborate?

I will bring the knowledge framework — how we do the manipulation, management, and analysis of data and transform it into information and knowledge — that we developed at the NCI. Also, we would hope to be continuing some of the projects we were working on at the NCI.

Will any of your efforts involve caBIG infrastructure?

The CASI program will clearly leverage much of the knowledge management environment that was created by caBIG. This includes some of the multidimensional analysis capabilities, the ability to interconnect multidimensional molecular data with clinical data, and will leverage the open source information management frameworks as well as some of the tools demonstrated as part of that activity.

I understand you will also be a part of ASU's college of liberal arts and life sciences as well. What will you be teaching?

Much of that is still under development as to what the particular work will be. Clearly it will be around computational biology, bioinformatics. Our hope is to also develop and expand offerings around the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative in order to bring this to the much broader undergraduate/graduate curriculum.

Have topics you'd like to see covered in BioInform? Contact the editor at uthomas [at] genomeweb [.] com.

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